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Early risk reaps rewards

Loren Swanberg, president of Hayes Cabinets Inc. in Woodland, Wash., is a firm believer in shop efficiency and maintaining a smooth work flow. It has motivated him to equip his 50,000-sq.-ft. facility with the latest in CNC machinery in a continuing effort to streamline his custom production processes and mirror the successes of European-style manufacturers.

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Hayes Cabinets opened in 1972 as a two-man business run out of a garage. Swanberg plugged away through the years, eventually bought out his partner and assembled a CNC cabinetry business that focuses on the high-end custom residential market, for both new homes and remodels. The company employs 65 people and grosses about $8 million a year. The success and size of the operation can be traced back to a decision Swanberg made 18 years ago to implement CNC machinery.

CNC believer
Swanberg entered the CNC arena around 1990 when the technology was relatively new to the woodworking industry. He viewed his choice as all or nothing, and elected to go full-speed ahead. The decision to go frameless was made at about the same time. If the company was going to make face frames, then it would have to be a manual operation, which entailed using people. But by going frameless, he could automate. His desire to create and sustain a fine-tuned CNC operation has been unwavering ever since.

HAYES CABINETS INC. Owner: Loren Swanberg
Location: Woodland, Wash.
Plant size: 50,000 sq. ft.
Employees: 65
Annual gross sales:
$8 million
Client perception:
“My theory is the customer sees pretty much two different people in our organization,” says Swanberg. “One is the sales guy and the other guy is installation, and if neither one of those makes a good impression or performs, I don’t get a referral.”
Kitchen changes: “We’ve always been residential, but in 1972 houses were pretty minimalized. You did a kitchen and a bathroom and that was what the house was made of. Now, besides the kitchens, we’ll do whole entertainment walls, dens and rooms of  cabinetry. There’s just a lot of millwork; I use that word pretty loosely, but there’s a lot of millwork that goes into creating the feel that we want in this market today.”

“Once we made the commitment, we had to go all the way,” recalls Swanberg. “It was the infancy of CNC in our industry. But it was the commitment at that time and it took a while to get it to totality. In 1990, we made the turn and decided to go frameless; we went CNC and we went bar code, point-to-point. At that time, it was all new.”

Swanberg toured European manufacturing facilities and became a big fan of Stiles products such as his Weeke point-to-point machine center and Homag six-roll capacity edgebander. He occasionally strays away from Stiles, such as a purchase of an Italian-made Giben panel saw a couple years ago. The woodworking and cabinetry machinery that see daily use at Hayes Cabinets include:

• Giben Y3000 panel saw

• Butfering Classic 48" 3-head wide-belt sander with Doucet BT-60 return conveyor

• Comil CF-2000 case clamp

• Homag SE 9800/S2 CNC edgebander (six roll capability) with Ligmatech Boomerang ZHR return conveyor

• Quickwood Pro 1100 contour/denibbing sander with Doucet-2048 return conveyor

• Jenkins-Unique 2500 door machine

• Unique Machine and Tool Co. 325 Shape and Sand CNC machine

• Gannomat Elite 25 boring machine

• Disa Cattinair Rotoclean G spray machine

• Weeke BHC 550 point-to-point machine center

• Weinig Unimat 500 molder

• TigerStop

• SawStop table saws

• Altendorf sliding table saw

Swanberg has based his CNC purchasing decisions on labor savings and accuracy.

“There obviously has to be a need, which is the apparent issue, and then the cost and how many potential people it would replace,” he says. “There are benefits to a machine other than just cost savings, such as quality issues and versatility. I think all of those fit in. My theory was always buy bigger than you need so you can grow into it. It gives you some capacity. If I want to do three functions on it, I better buy one that will do six because we will find a need for it.”

Business breakdown
Everything at Hayes Cabinets is custom built to cater to the individual homeowner. The main product is kitchens, which accounts for approximately 65 percent of the company’s business. Full rooms, bath areas, dens and entertainment centers are the remaining product areas. Because of the housing crisis, there has been a significant jump in remodeling projects.

As owner and president, Swanberg oversees a business that is divided into four departments: sales, engineering, manufacturing and installation.

“We sell everything and we install it ourselves, so we don’t have any dealers. We have a team of sales guys and a sales manager. The sales guys and their organization do the designing themselves, make the sale and give their drawings to the engineering department, which turns that into a manufacturing order.

“Right now we are running nine installers that work out of their homes. I will not sub out an installation job. I have good guys and they work for me and no one else, and that’s part of our presentation.”

Hayes Cabinets spends a substantial amount of resources on the bidding process. The company focuses on a 50-mile radius — the bedroom communities of Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, Wash. — and it’s a competitive market.

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“Some of the builders never check you and others, privates, check you a lot,” says Sawnberg. “We do not go to bid centers and just bid any job on the board. But we do spend a lot of time and money on the front end of our bidding.”

Product development
The majority of the work handled by Hayes Cabinets originates from building contractors, designers and architects. There are also a small percentage of walk-in sales from homeowners.

“Most of it is contractor work,” says Swanberg. “We’ve developed relationships over the years so we do all their work, and designers are a big key to us. And we have a showroom where we deal as well. If somebody comes in and wants a kitchen, we’ll help design, build and install it. If it is more of a stock thing, then we do quite a bit of that on a speculative basis where we just figure out what we’re doing between us and the builder and we build it. There’s a lot of repetitive business.”

The showroom area consists of several full-size kitchens and rooms exhibiting various styles, finishes and other completed projects.

Hayes has used Pattern Systems software for years, but recently switched to Planit Solid Design. Swanberg says it’s too early to form an opinion on how the new software is working out.

“I have people in engineering who process the order, [outsource] the doors and enter the batch downloads to the different machines. We’re so custom that at least one-third of our sales volume are items other than cabinet boxes — turned posts, moldings, hoods, etc. I’ve basically built a shop to build boxes and the industry has turned almost into a millwork [operation].”

Good lookin’
Swanberg can’t stress enough the importance of product quality.

“I’ve always tried to position myself to be in the upper level of quality,” he says, “and I think that has always contributed some stability to me. We have always had a stabilized sales force as well as an installation group so we can process it all the way through. That’s always been a good deal, and the builders have appreciated that as well.”

Finishing is one area that has received a lot of attention through the years and the owner views finishing as a prime indicator of quality. Hayes Cabinets has four to five full-time finishers and an automatic robotic flat-line spray system manufactured by Cattinair in France.

The operator of the CNC spray system first places unfinished material on a conveyor belt. The material travels through a scrubber, a vacuum system to remove any excess material and a spraying sensor that dictates what exact areas are to be sprayed. The material continues on the conveyor belt where it is sprayed by a four-gun spray carousal system. The finished piece continues its travel down a long conveyor belt that eventually turns around and the piece ends up within a couple feet of where the operator first placed it.

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“It’s a machine we’ve had since the early ’90s. It senses the size of the board and sprays only the board. It’s very efficient and does an absolutely perfect job. We pride ourselves in finishing detail,” says Swanberg. “One thing we’re known for is we’re the best finisher around.”

He estimates about 25 percent of the finishing now is some form of distressed work, which in his market is referred to as rustic or “lodgey.” Other custom finishes include glazes and various painting styles.

“In our market here we’re pretty much at the forefront of that. We’ll go to the shows and we watch magazines closely. We see what’s coming from the East to the West because it always takes a long time to get out here. I feel we are pretty responsive to have a product that’s state-of-the-art for our area.”

Through the years, the company has been able to retain a large portion of its workforce. Swanberg says that’s a credit to how employees are treated.

“I’ve had the philosophy that I’m offering more benefits and paying more than what’s typical. We have vacations, 401(k) plans, health insurance, so I always think that contributes some to the longevity of the crew and I would also hope that they would include that we [provide] a good work environment.”

Most of the raw materials are obtained from three distributors in Portland, Ore., about 35 miles away. The 3/4" veneer plywood material is supplied by the Mount Baker Plywood mill in Bellingham, Wash. Hayes has been a faithful customer of Blum hardware, while most of the knobs are purchased from Top Knob.

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One of the few areas Hayes Cabinets hasn’t become involved in is countertops — and it doesn’t sound as if that policy is going to change.

“We don’t do countertops,” Swanberg states definitively. “I think it is a specialty item and if you’re going to do countertops, you have to have the laminate and the tile guy, the Corian guy and the stone guy, and I don’t think you can be an expert in all of the above.”

Hayes Cabinets has a superb Web site that showcases its product offerings and highlights services the company provides. The site has been operational for five years, but Swanberg can’t assess its value beyond the fact that it adds credibility to the business.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m a marketing genius at all. We’re very local in our marketing, and it’s mostly been custom homes, word of mouth, referrals and just our network in our local area.”

The company does a fair amount of kitchen-oriented advertising in some local venues and occasionally will exhibit at a home show.

There is a perception that the Portland area is a haven for environmentalists and the green movement. But locals will tell you that once you leave the city, the surrounding area becomes quite conservative in just a matter of a few miles. That might explain why there is not a significant number of clients requesting sustainable or certified products from Hayes Cabinets. However, the company was recently certified by the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association for the trade group’s new environmental green program.

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“I think the whole building industry now is in turmoil about what all this green business is about ... that’s why we got on this KCMA program, because there are a set of rules you have to meet. The criteria, even as loose as they may be, at least there is a set of criteria.”

Another generation
When Swanberg looks back and considers the transitions he has gone through, both personally and with the business, he feels that changes just gradually happened over the years and he directed the business to where the demand was greatest. He readily admits he misses shop life and the creative opportunities he used to have.

“I enjoyed that part where I was more in the sales side in creating and satisfying customer’s needs, and now I don’t see that at all. I’m just overseeing and solving problems once in a while,” he says.

His greatest satisfaction now emanates from thank-you notes the company receives from satisfied customers. The notes are posted so everyone in the company can read them and gain the satisfaction of knowing they contributed to a job well done.

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Now in his 36th year of business, Swanberg appears to have his future, as well as the company’s, mapped out. Hayes Cabinets has been at its current location since 2000 and the owner says there still is enough room for growth in the facility to gross another $4 million or $5 million a year.

“It’s a tough business. In our market and at the level we are at, the client’s expectations are extremely high. Some of those are even unrealistic expectations but it’s their dream home, it’s the home they’ve lived in, and if they want to remodel, they know every square inch, so it’s our challenge to try to deal with that.

“I have two sons who got out of college and have come back and worked with us, so the game plan would be for me to slide aside a little bit and have them take over. They’re eager and involved with it. My older son is running the shop and the younger one is running the installation crews. I’ll slide out of the way here eventually.”

Contact: Hayes Cabinets Inc., P.O. Box 2330, 660 Mitchell Ave., Woodland, WA 98674. Tel: 360-887-3581.

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